Dormancy

Definition from: https://www.biologyonline.com/dictionary/dormancy

I have been thinking, for weeks, about dormancy. And writing. And habits. I’ve been thinking about the weekly notification I get of how many hours I spend each day on my phone, which does not equate with hours spent on social media, but still. It’s a lot. An astonishing amount, really, especially when I consider how many decades I lived without a cell phone and all it contains. What did I do with the hours I now spend using a phone?

I’ve been thinking about how I spend my days, which, as Annie Dillard told us long ago, is how we spend our lives. Since June, there has been a great easing in mine. September and October, when I re-entered the classroom after a decade+ absence, had its rough days, and I know there will be more of those, but on the whole there has been so much easing. I’ve opened a space, but too often I have not filled it quite as I think I’d like to.

I have been thinking, for weeks, about how often I pick up my phone when there is a quiet moment. Or an uncomfortable one. Or an exhausted one. I’ve been thinking about how it has become difficult for me to sustain my way through the reading of a print book, and how astonishing that is. My father once told me, when I was a young woman, that when he thought of me he pictured my younger self sitting at the kitchen table with a book propped up behind my plate, reading as I ate. There was a time that I never truly ate alone, because if there was no flesh-and-blood human with whom to share my meal, there was always a book with its other voice to keep me company. I can’t remember the last time I consumed a book with a meal. I often want to, but I have no book I’m reading. I remember when I always had a book I was reading (usually more than one).

I start many books, but I finish few. I’m not sure why.

Sometime back in November, I went to the library to graze the stacks, one of the best ways I’ve found to tune into what the universe (or something that “the universe” is our shorthand for) is saying to me. That day, I found Julia Cameron’s It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again, a version of her classic The Artist’s Way, written especially for those “at mid-life and beyond.” Hers is a 12-week program of creative recovery, which is just about the length of a season. I read enough of it to decide to buy my own copy, thinking I would start working through its program at the beginning of January.

Instead, I began it this week, on the first day of winter. I have been thinking about winter since the day I listened to a Story Corps episode on the way to work in which Suzanne Valle talked about life in terms of seasons. She said that the winter of our lives begins at 60. Four days before that, I had turned 57.

Time is infinite, and the universe is infinite, but an individual life is not. I have been thinking about that, too. A lot. Despite what Cameron might have us believe, sometimes it is too late to begin again–because we have ended.

I have been thinking about Words of the Year, the choosing of which is a practice that some I follow or interact with on social media engage in. I tried it a few times, but it didn’t work for me. It still doesn’t, but I’ve been thinking about what I want more and less of in the coming year. “Scrolling” isn’t going to be anyone’s word of the year, is it?

As I’ve been having all these thoughts, I’ve been more mindful of what I’m getting (and not) when I engage with social media. I love Kate’s Instagram stories, because she so often shares things that are funny, wise, or visually gorgeous. Sometimes she shares words that seem to be just what I needed to hear at the moment I read them. I love being in the company of Dave Bonta’s Poetry Blogging Network. I love interacting with those of you who write to me here.

I have been thinking about June, when I might be in the position of needing to make a decision about teaching for another year. I have been thinking about all of the reasons I have never written in the ways I’ve said I would like to, in ways I gave up trying to more than a decade ago. I’ve been thinking about how, if I were to make a different space for writing in my life, I don’t know what I would fill it with, and how I am so often tired of the sound of my own voice. I’ve been wondering if the writing I do here is the writing I need to do, or if it is something that keeps me from the writing I need to do. I have been wondering how I want to spend my minutes, hours, days, life.

There have been a lot of thoughts rattling around in my (increasingly) old head, and I haven’t even started with the feelings.

So I keep returning to dormancy, and how that might work for a large mammal who cannot sleep underground for 12 or more weeks.

I’ve decided to take the winter off from things that make up too many of the hours I spend on my phone. I’m taking the social media apps (other than Messenger, which I use to communicate with folks) off my phone and I’m not going to write here again until Sunday, March 20th, the first day of spring. I’m not going completely off-line, but I intend to be much more intentional about being on. What I want is to clear some space and be purposeful about what I let into it. I think I need some arbitrary restrictions and some public declaration to make a necessary quiet happen.

I have been wary of writing that last paragraph because there are things I know I will miss, and because writing here has become a thing I count on for several different kinds of good things. I have been avoiding it because if I didn’t write it I could more easily change my mind about the whole thing. I was avoiding it because there’s some fear in this for me.

But I’m saying it and am going to do it because last week, when I went into Powell’s, a bookstore that covers an entire city block and was once one of my favorite places, I felt overwhelmed by the cacophony of voices shouting at me from the shelves. There is so much clamor in the world, and so often lately all I can hear is a grating din. I want to see if I can create a pocket of quiet within it, if I can make my way back to some part of that young girl who loved to make a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of canned chicken noodle soup and eat them slowly at her family’s kitchen table in the company of a book, able to hear nothing in her mind’s ear but the voice of one other person speaking to her. I don’t know if this experiment is as much about becoming some other kind of writer as it is about becoming a different kind of reader. All I know is that somehow, I’ve lost my way, and I want to find it again.

Hope you’ll check back in here come spring. If you’re not yet a subscriber, please consider signing up (top of right sidebar) and you’ll get an email when a new post goes up. (I don’t do anything with the subscriber list. To be honest, I don’t really know how to.) Wishing you all a good season of whatever it is you need from it.

Not exactly a Hallmark holiday movie

In 2006, my daughter wanted a laptop for Christmas. Not a toy laptop, but a REAL one. It was all she talked about. She was 8, and in those pre-chromebook days, a laptop for an 8-year-old was not a reality in our family (of 4 kids) budget. (Honestly, even a chromebook likely wouldn’t have been.)

I spent hours scouring the internet for something that was a close facsimile to her dream, and eventually I found it: a VTech laptop with a keyboard and screen that looked (mostly) like a real computer’s. I ordered it and moved on to the other things on my checklist, which was much deeper than my resources that year.

It wasn’t a good time for us; although I had not yet fully admitted it to myself or anyone else, my marriage was ending. I was losing weight and battling insomnia and treading fear. My twins were doubting Santa, and I worried that this might be the last good childhood Christmas for them. I couldn’t even imagine what the next year’s holiday might be for them, if I couldn’t figure out some way to stay married to their father. I didn’t just want to fulfill their Christmas dreams that year; I needed to.

So when, less than a week out from the big day, on an afternoon when I had a dentist appointment to fill a tooth cracked from my jaw’s merciless grinding, I received an update to my laptop order indicating that it would not be delivered until after Christmas, I lost it.

I lost it in the way I was losing what had been my life: not suddenly, not dramatically, not even that noticeably, but in a slow, crumpling sort of way. I showed up at the dentist’s after a long day at school, feeling shaky and tired and panicked about when and how at that late date I was going to come up with some kind of comparable replacement for the laptop, but getting that filling taken care of was on the long list of things to do, and I had hauled myself there in spite of how I was feeling because I knew that my feelings were a little ridiculous and I didn’t want anyone to know about them. When the dentist asked how I was doing, I said, casually as I could, “fine, just a little stressed because a Christmas present for my daughter isn’t going to arrive on time.” No real biggie. He shrugged as if to say, What can you do, right?

Lying back in the chair, as he moved a needle full of novocaine toward my mouth, I reminded myself to relax my fingers and toes, and to breathe.

After several shots, my mouth was numb, but when he began to drill, I could feel it, deep inside my jaw. I told myself it wasn’t that bad, that it was OK, but after a few minutes I raised my hand to let him know that it wasn’t OK.

He stopped and injected more novocaine. It was late in the day, and I could sense his impatience.

He tried drilling again, and still I could feel pain. After a few moments, I raised my hand again. He injected more painkiller into my jaw.

After a few minutes he tried again, and still I could feel pain. I shook my head.

“I can’t give you any more of this,” he said, “and we’re far enough into this procedure that I have to finish it.”

The physical pain was not tortuous; I could take it. My fear and bewilderment, however, felt nearly unbearable. Why was this happening? Would there be a sudden moment of excruciating pain? What was wrong with me, and why couldn’t I get a grip? It made no sense that I was feeling anything; one whole half of my face felt like a rubbery mallet. Was it all in my head? I felt trapped in the chair, with my big, dumb, numb (but not numb-enough) mouth held open by the dentist’s rough hands. I closed my eyes when he began drilling again, and tears rolled from the corners of them and soaked the hair above my ears. I wasn’t crying, not in any way I ever had before or since, but tears were falling. I couldn’t stop them.

He didn’t speak to me for the rest of the procedure, and I felt shame in the face of what seemed like his anger. I supposed his afternoon was ruined, too.

“I’m sorry,” he said when he was done. “I had no choice but to finish.” I’m pretty sure I apologized in return. At the least, I know I assured him that it was all right. That’s the kind of thing I would have done back then. I’d have said whatever would most quickly get me out from under the beating fluorescent lights of his clinic and into the opaque darkness on the other side of its windows.

As it turned out, my husband somehow procured the faux-laptop from another source, and my daughter had it to open on Christmas morning. If my life had been a Hallmark movie, I would have realized, when my husband saved my daughter’s Christmas, that I’d been all wrong about so many things, and that horrible afternoon at the dentist’s would have been the low point before my wake-up call. Our moppet would have beamed with joy on Christmas morning and we would have looked at each other with love as she pulled us together for a hug.

Yeah, that’s not how it went.

On Christmas morning she did her best to look happy and express gratitude, but I could tell she was disappointed that it wasn’t a REAL laptop. I don’t remember any loving glances or hugs between her father and I. Things between us were already too raw and too far gone for touch.

Because it was the year of her laptop, Santa brought my daughter a laptop ornament; every time I’ve hung it on our tree since, I’ve remembered that afternoon at the dentist’s office. I continued to see him until I got divorced in 2008; he was our family dentist, and I didn’t feel able to leave his practice until I left so many other things that had made up the mosaic of our family’s life.

I’d like to tell you that the years of Christmases after that one were better or easier. I’d like to tell you that I was wrong about 2006 being some kind of last Christmas and that I continued to create holidays that were as magical for my kids as the ones I created for the first eight years of their lives. Or, I’d like to tell you that I hit some kind of Christmas rock bottom in the dentist’s chair and realized that no present or holiday was worth the stress and pain I felt that day. But they weren’t and I didn’t do either of those things. We struggled and celebrated through Christmases with different kinds of challenges and pleasures, and I know the holiday was never quite as wonderful for my children after that last year before divorce changed the foundation of their lives. In fact, there were years not long after that one when both of my children told me that they hated Christmas, a sentiment I sometimes (silently) shared. While I eventually reached a point where I no longer second-guessed my choices, sometimes I deeply missed the years I stayed up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning finishing my magic-making and was woken only a few hours later by belief-filled feet pounding down the hallway outside our bedroom door. Sometimes I still do.

Last week, my daughter, who is planning a Christmas celebration across a continent and ocean with a young man she loves, asked me about our Christmas day traditions. “I remember the advent calendar and decorating stockings before Christmas, but I can’t remember much about the day itself other than opening presents,” she said.

“Oh, honey,” I said. “I was always so wasted by Christmas day I didn’t do much more than make a breakfast and clean up the wrapping paper and take a nap. And some years we spent the day in the car.”

I told her about staying up long after everyone had gone to bed, wrapping gifts. I told her, laughing at myself, about the year her dad and older sister had built a train table for the Brio set, and I was painting the little town scene on the base of it until after 2:00 AM on Christmas morning. I told her about the year I made her a dress-up trunk. “I had to find a trunk, and the clothes to put in the trunk–which I got from multiple visits to Goodwill–and the flower and letter decals I put on the lid of the trunk.” I told her about how my favorite moment of Christmas was often the one that happened in those middle-of-the-night hours, when everything was finally done and I would sit by myself in front of the lit tree in our dark living room and sip a glass of wine and relish the calm. I even told her the story of the laptop year and the afternoon at the dentist.

“Well, you know why I wanted a laptop,” she said. I told her I didn’t.

“I wanted to be like you,” she said. “Every morning when I got up, you’d be downstairs on your computer.”

“Really?” I said. “I never knew that.” I remembered those years when I used to get up at 4:30 in the morning so I would have time to write, and how that time often ended when she, like me, always an early riser, came down our stairs to find me sitting on the couch, tapping away. I both loved and dreaded the sound of her footsteps.

She paused. “For someone who’s so aware of so many things, how could you have missed that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I suppose it’s because missing things is what we do, especially when we are in the thick of it.

This year, for the first time in so long I can’t tell you how many years it’s been, this season has been a source of almost nothing but joy. I have loved finding gifts for the people I love, and decorating the house, and making plans. For the first time since divorcing, I’ve sent a few cards. I even spent an afternoon making Scandinavian-style paper snowflake flowers to hang in the kitchen windows, a frivolous kind of crafty something I’ve been wanting to do for two years. Aside from Covid-related issues, I haven’t felt stressed or hurried or worried about anything having to do with the holiday. This year, the way we’re observing it is just the right size for the time and money and energy we have to spend on it, and the occasional sneak-attacks of longing for who and what won’t be part of this year’s season feel more like gifts than grief. I’m glad to have had so many of the things I’ve lost.

I’d like to wrap this story up with a well-tied bow, neatly joining the disparate ends of the ribbon connecting my Christmases past to my Christmas present, but (like so much of the holidays, so much of life) I can’t get it to fit into a tidy package. My ordeal in the dentist’s chair isn’t a clean metaphor for my marriage or its end, and I’ve got no big nugget of wisdom to share, no sure and hard-won lesson to impart. There’s no real moral to this story that is full of “both/ands,” rather than of “if/thens” or “either/ors,” or “if only I’d knowns.” Those years of mothering through dysfunction and deterioration were both hard and wonderful. I have always been a person with feelings both ridiculous and sublime. It seems like a bit of a blessing or some kind of elegant design that I couldn’t know then what I know now–about what we all really wanted and needed and how everything would go; such knowledge might have been unbearable before I was strong enough to carry it. Some things we can only pick up slowly, in pieces, over time, maybe especially when it comes to love, which at its core is really all that this story of the laptop and the dentist and the last Christmas is about: true, messy, deep, unruly, irrational, unconditional, infinite love.

Wishing all of you the kind of holiday you need.

Last week

Last week, I didn’t write here about the school shooting in Michigan. I wrote about a Christmas tree stand, which was my way of writing about hope.

Last week, a friend sent me a poem, written by a father whose daughter is an art teacher, that was, in part, about his wife spinning wool in the wake of the school shooting, and I felt the deep pull I have been feeling for years to leave schools and take up useful, concrete work I might do with my hands, so that I, too, like the poet’s wife, might “disappear” into “gentle quiet.”

Last week, though, I stayed at school and didn’t take up wool-spinning. I went to school and taught the lessons I’d planned not knowing there would be another school shooting. (Know that, for me, school shootings are not unlike my migraines, in that the question is never if there will be another, but only when there will be another. I try not to let them dictate too much of my life.) I taught my students about the media bias chart because it is a tool I am asking them to use to evaluate sources of information. To be able to comprehend the chart, we had to dive into conceptually-rich vocabulary: liberal, conservative, fact reporting, news analysis, propaganda, fabrication, extremism, reliability. I divided them into groups and asked them to find sources to verify their definitions of the terms, something that proved valuable when we realized that different groups were sharing different, sometimes contradictory ones for the same words.

We talked then about nuance, about how Wikipedia, despite being routinely banned as an acceptable source of information by many teachers, is (like most tools) neither all-good nor all-bad; we talked about how it can be useful for some purposes if you understand how it works and how to use it. We talked about how most sources of information contain articles with varying degrees of bias and reliability, making it nearly impossible to blindly trust anything we read only because it comes from a particular source. We talked about the more-than-sometimes arbitrariness of rules and how my restriction that they can only use sources with a reliability score of 40 or higher on this bound-to-be-flawed (because created by humans) chart is both arbitrary and reasonable.

And we talked, just a bit, about the school shooting, though only to use it as a vehicle for understanding the differences between “original fact reporting” vs. “fact reporting” vs. “complex analysis” vs. “analysis” vs. “opinion.” We talked about it without emotion, I think because the possibility of lethal violence is just a part of the landscape for all of us who spend our days in schools, in the way that my poorly-functioning projector or classrooms that are often too hot or too cold or laptops that don’t work are so much a part of the backdrop they aren’t remarkable enough to comment on. (Outrage and despair and bewilderment are not sustainable over time; the unthinkable, if it persists long enough, becomes not only thinkable, but normal.) I used the school shooting as an example to illustrate the chart’s concepts because it was a current event that didn’t require me to build any schema for anyone; we all know about school shootings (though some were not aware of last week’s particular one) and how they are reported on in our media.

Last week, what I wanted my students to learn is that even in a world full of cacophonous contradiction, there are facts and that we can find truth if we know how to look for it. I wanted them to know that the world is full of far more gray than black and white, and that multiple shades of it can all be useful in knowing how to find answers to our questions.

Last week, this week, every week, I wanted and want and will always want to give them what they need to live in a world where school is–and, for them, always has been–a place of lockdown drills and existential threat and adults who refuse to do what’s necessary to keep them safe.

There is more than one way to “knit whatever it takes to keep another warm.”

Lifetime guarantee

The Christmas aisle at the local hardware store, late on an early-December Friday afternoon, doesn’t seem like a place for existential questions, and yet that is exactly where and when I found myself pondering one this week.

Cane and I had gone to get a Christmas tree stand (though neither of us identifies as Christian and it should more appropriately be called a pagan tree stand) because we’d just bought a tree and needed something to hold it up.

There was an earlier time, one that now feels like what we might call a lifetime or two ago, that we bought a stand together. I remember, then, wavering between a cheap and flimsy one and another that was sturdier and more expensive. “Let’s get the good one,” I’d said. “I hate buying cheap things that don’t last.” I had imagined us using the stand for years of Christmases together in our home.

As it turned out, we didn’t. I still have that stand, but parts of it have broken off, and this is the first Christmas in six years that we’ve lived together in the same home. The stand is usable, sort of, but not easy to use. Earlier this week, I put in it a small tree that I’ve placed on the front deck we had built this summer. The tree is a little tippy, but it works well enough for a small outside tree that no one is likely to brush up against.

Two years ago, I was ready to swear off real trees forever, but there I was in the hardware store needing a new stand because I now have two of them.

Two years ago, I bought a thing I once said I’d never buy: an artificial tree. It was my first Christmas in this house, living alone, and so many things then were about figuring out how to live independently. I had a child coming home for the holidays, and even though he was coming to a place that had never been his home I wanted it to feel like home. That meant I needed a tree. I wanted a tree I could manage by myself, both physically and financially, for not only that year but for years to come. A small, pre-lit plastic tree that I would only have to buy once seemed like the perfect answer.

It was–until it wasn’t.

Last year I kinda hated that tree. I told myself it wasn’t the tree, with its bottle-brush looking foliage, that made me sad every time I looked at it; it was a Covid-bubble Christmas in a pre-vaccine pandemic that was making me sad. But still, it did make me sad, a feeling that only increased when one of the strings of lights stopped working. I put that tree away the day after Christmas and immediately felt lighter and better.

As December approached this year, I felt torn about the tree question. I’ll spare you all the arguments and counter-arguments I wrestled with, and the results of all my Google searches for a better not-real-tree alternative; I’ll just say that after a period of thinking about it, we eventually concluded we’d probably get a real tree again. Thanksgiving weekend we walked two blocks from our house to a small tree lot just to look, and when the scent of cut fir hit me I knew: No more sad, plastic tree for me. Tuesday I packed up the fake one and dropped it off at a thrift store, hoping it might be someone else’s perfect solution now. I was committing to the real deal.

So, there we were at the hardware store late on a Friday afternoon at the end of the long week after Thanksgiving, facing the same question we’d faced all those years ago when we were buying a stand for a tree for a different house and a different kind of holiday than the ones we now have.

Our choices? A cheap plastic stand for $19.99 and the most solid-looking, no-plastic, old-fashioned tree stand I’ve ever seen for $70.00. There were several left of the cheap ones, and only one expensive one. The box for the expensive one had “Lifetime” printed in large red letters on every side of it.

What is a lifetime? I wondered. How can we possibly we know what we’ll need for a lifetime?

I thought about how so many young families now talk about their desire for “a forever home,” a concept I don’t remember from my own early days of homeownership. Although I lived in one house from the ages of 4 to 18, I’ve lived in and owned five different homes in the past 30 years. I’ve been married three times. I really couldn’t tell you how many lifetimes I’ve lived. Even though Cane and I love the house we now live in, we know we could well be somewhere else ten years from now. Our holidays could (likely will) be different again, our health could be different, our financial situation could be different, the world could be different. We might not have the desire or capacity for the kind of tree that needs a heavy-duty stand. We know, in ways we couldn’t have known when we bought our last stand together, that ten years from now one or both of us could again be facing the tree question alone. Ten years, or months, or days from now, everything could be different.

So, what to do? How to spend our money? What future to bet on? I suppose that for many people, perhaps most young people, a tree stand is just a tree stand, and buying one is only another item on a long list of holiday to-dos, but sometimes, late on an early-December Friday afternoon in the aisle of a neighborhood hardware store, for a couple of more old-than-young people who know that loss and change are the warp and weft of every life, a tree stand can also be an embodiment of faith and hope and love.

We bought the good one.

Why I celebrate holidays I no longer believe in

There were the years I couldn’t fully enjoy the holidays because our gatherings were too different from earlier ones I’d loved. And now those lesser holidays are gone, too, our children grown and our dogs buried and our bodies both softer and more brittle than they’ve ever been. What I wouldn’t give to have moments of them back, even to hear my children bickering at the table again.

So I don’t wish any part of this year’s Thanksgiving away, even though the TV is on too loud and is too full of commercials for sweaters and tools and jewelry and perfume and red and green and sleigh bells and news of coming floods. Even though we spend too much time sitting in front of it and even though I miss those who aren’t here.

In the mornings my parents and brother and I watch Perry Mason and Leave It to Beaver and The Rifleman. On Friday my daughter–stuck in immigration limbo in another country–sends me an Instagram post about Thanksgiving and cultural hegemony and how simply rebranding Thanksgiving upholds colonization. (I haven’t seen her in more than a year. I don’t know when I will again, or how each of us will have changed by the time we do, what things about each other we’ll be surprised by because FaceTime will not have revealed them. My missing her is so deep it’s not even an ache. It’s something I don’t have a word for.)

Yes, I think. And.

I want to answer her, but I don’t know how to say how it is for me.

I know what the holiday is and isn’t and I care but I will not give up being with the people I love. Not because I’ve been conditioned or socialized to want it. I want them because they are me, they are mine, and they are still here and I can.

My mother and I spend some of the holiday agonizing over a decision about attending a Christmas party with extended family this year. My mother is now the oldest of us, a development I once understood would come to be, even as it felt impossible, then, that one day all those who came before her would be gone.

I’ve reached a stage where, on a good day, I am more grateful for what remains than mournful for what I’ve lost. (Will that be true when only my generation is left?)

We decide we should not go to the gathering. Risk-reward calculations are so difficult now. Are we saving ourselves for something our choices are taking from us?

My old dog whimpers when we come in the door on Friday after two nights gone. She’s too fragile to travel now, and she stayed home with my son, who spent the holiday with his dad and his siblings who have a different mother. I have to hold her for a good long time before her body stops trembling. I wonder what she felt while I was gone, if she wondered if I’d return. I hope not.

That night we watch Ted Lasso who says, about parents, that he has learned to love them for what they are and forgive them for what they’re not, and I wonder how things might be if more of us could do that about all kinds of things. I wonder if we could, or should. (I wonder if my children will do that for me.)

Maybe that’s an idea that makes it easier for those with relative comfort to remain comfortable.

Maybe not.

I don’t know.

My son sits down on the couch next to me, to check in with his old dog who isn’t leaving my side. I’m so grateful he was able to care for her while I was gone. I’m so grateful he’s here.

I think about the year he was in second grade, when, the week before Thanksgiving, I read him a story about Natives and Pilgrims and the origins of the holiday, and he told me it made him sad, that he didn’t feel good about the holiday. As his nose touches our old girl who now, like a baby, wakes mostly just to eat and poop, I remember all the versions of boy and dog each of them has been, and I want the moment to last forever, even as I know that all I might hope to hold onto is an image of it, and that the wanting has turned the moment to memory before it is even over.

Ka-Boom

On Wednesday my head exploded. Or maybe it was my heart. My soul? Something. Everything?

Maybe it didn’t explode. Maybe it just boiled over. I have known for weeks that something was building under the surface. Bubbles of anger kept rising within me, occasionally splattering some mess over the stovetop of my day, but I’d just slap a lid on it and do my best to turn down the heat (which looks a lot like eating chocolate and watching Ted Lasso every night).

On Wednesday I had a meeting with my principal to discuss the class she’d observed as part of my formal evaluation process for the year. She opened with: “When I left your room, I walked back to the office and announced to the office staff: ‘And that, folks, is how it’s done!'”

Isn’t is strange how, sometimes, affirmation and praise can be the things that push you over an edge you didn’t fully realize you’d been teetering on?

The news is full of stories of all the ways in which students, teachers, and school systems are struggling. On Tuesday we learned that a local middle school (one that some of my school’s students attended) was shifting to remote learning for the next three weeks because student behaviors have become so unsafe.

Meanwhile, in my classroom at a public charter school that serves students who attend our local public high schools half-time, things are going great–better than they ever did when I was last a classroom teacher, 12 years ago. The class my principal observed is full of 16- and 17-year old boys who like to design and build things (they are in our engineering and manufacturing program), and they have stayed with me for 6 weeks focused on reading complex informational text and writing summaries. (Yeah, that’s as dry and academic as it sounds.) Many of them have told me how much they dislike English class because it’s just not their thing. And yet, I have never had a bad or even difficult day in class with them. (Truly. The biggest disruption thus far came from one boy bringing in a bag of candy the day after Halloween.) I have been keeping this state of affairs mostly to myself or downplaying it when others ask how things are going. When I listen to my colleagues in other places, I feel guilty to be having it so relatively good.

But I have also been feeling angry. Angry about nothing and everything. The anger seemed so wrong–how could I be angry when things are going so well?–that I stuffed it as soon as I became aware of its presence. Wednesday, as I processed with my principal the lesson she observed, I finally understood where it’s coming from.

As we talked, I began to see clearly that things are going great not because I’m lucky, and not because I’m teaching in a charter school, where students have chosen to be, and not because I have especially “good kids.” (I’d tell you how much I hate it when teachers and others declare some kids “good,” but that’s a digression I’ll save for another day.) Those first two things might be at play, but other factors are far more important in explaining how I knocked my lesson out of the park:

  • I’m working in a small school with a healthy culture and strong leadership, where students are known and structural components of the program make it possible for them to form positive relationships with staff and each other.
  • I have reasonable class sizes (24 and 27 students).
  • I’m working my ass off, struggling and generally failing to limit my work to 1/2-time hours (20 per week) for my contracted 1/3-time job (13.2 hours per week), but because I can afford to teach only two classes and my personal life demands are manageable, I have time (no, am giving time) to do all the things we know are part of good teaching practice.
  • I know how to implement good teaching practices because, thanks to my years as an instructional coach, I’ve had the opportunity for deep, sustained learning about how to teach well.

Because of all these things (take away any one of them and the outcome would be different), in spite of everything we’ve all been through since March 2020, I’m able to be a really damn good teacher this year. It’s hard for me to write that last sentence, socialized as I have been to be modest and avoid any behaviors that look like arrogance, but I think it might be the most important thing for me to say–because it’s at the root of why I’m so angry and sad and disheartened about the state of public education.

I’m not a good teacher because I’m especially talented at teaching. I’m not. In fact, teaching is, in many ways, a poor fit for me. I’m deeply introverted and probably further along on the neurodivergent side of the autism spectrum than most people know and I hate being the center of attention. I’m not charismatic and I’m not a performer and, frankly, I’m not anyone’s idea of fun. I’m serious and earnest and I often don’t get the joke.

But I’m a really good teacher these days–the best I’ve ever been–which means that most people who are teachers could be, too, if they had what I have and were given what I’ve gotten. (Hell, most could be far better than me because they are so much more suited for peopling than I am.)

But I’ve had all of these things, and that’s why I’m not experiencing the kinds of distress that most teachers are this year. It’s why I am having the best teaching year I’ve ever had AND I’m not sacrificing my own health or my family’s needs to get it.

So why am I so angry? BECAUSE EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE WHAT I HAVE AND THEY COULD IF WE WOULD PULL OUR COLLECTIVE HEADS OUT OF OUR ASSES. BECAUSE IT’S CONFIRMATION THAT ALL THE BULLSHIT ABOUT SELF-CARE AND HOLDING BOUNDARIES TEACHERS HAVE BEEN SURROUNDED BY FOR YEARS IS THE GAS-LIGHTING TOXIC CRAP I ALWAYS THOUGHT IT WAS AND I SUFFERED NEEDLESSLY THINKING MY INABILITY TO BE OK IN THE EDUCATION SYSTEM WAS MY OWN PERSONAL FAULT AND FAILING.

(yeah, I’m shouting)

I have confirmation now that it wasn’t my fault. I have confirmation that things can be different, even in the midst of multiple kinds of existential crises and systems failure. I have confirmation that all the contortions I’ve put myself through trying to make things better were a waste of time. I have confirmation that the system is as broken as I’ve feared.

We know–from all kinds of research–what our kids need to learn. I know, from both research and deep anecdotal evidence, that the biggest factor in student behavior and success is what the adults are doing. Not the adults in their homes, but the adults in their schools. My students have chosen to attend my school, which is an indicator of factors that might make it more likely that they will be successful, but collectively they bring with them the same full range of challenges that exist in most public school classrooms. I am not perfect in my practice, by any means, and not all of my students are thriving, but what’s happening in my classroom is so relatively good it often feels unreal, and if we truly valued our children the way we like to say we do, we’d put our money where our mouths are and do school differently so that teachers could have the time they need to learn, collaborate, plan well, and respond to students as individual learners because that is what’s best for kids.

Other countries do this. But we don’t. That’s the bottom line. (Insert screed about capitalistic values and how our children should not be treated like products or commodities.)

Instead of figuring out how to give teachers and schools what they really need to do a good job, politicians and school board members and parents are fighting over mask mandates and library books and the non-issue of CRT, generally to advance their own political agendas. We’re using our limited educational resources to manage a public health crisis and to comply with superficial directives (such as taking time for add-on social-emotional learning activities rather than making structural changes that will actually provide social and emotional supports) that will allow people in state-level administrative positions to look like they’re addressing our problems. I am so sick of what we do in schools being driven by adult needs to justify our practices, and too many days, I feel like I just can’t fucking take it any more. I retired earlier than planned because the system felt so damn broken and I couldn’t stomach being complicit in pretending that it wasn’t or that if we just tried harder or did some superficial things differently we could stop harming students. I couldn’t stomach being complicit in asking teachers to do more with less and contributing to the unmanageability of their jobs. I walked away from something I gave my life to and believe in the value of to my very core because I lost faith that things could be different.

And then I took this job. I took this job because it is both part of the system and apart from it, and I wanted to see if that was enough of a difference to make a difference. I wanted to find a way to not give up and to give to my community without having to give too much of myself. I have told myself over and over and over to focus on what I can control (my classroom) and the good I can do (for my students and school community) but I’m too angry at the ways in which all of us are being used and misused and how my continued willingness to be used (my true hourly rate is paltry, I don’t work enough to earn benefits, and my goal that I’m failing to reach is to work only one day a week for free) is part of what allows the brokenness to continue. I’m too angry about how all of this mangles my stupid heart and the hearts of so many people who want to serve and support our kids. Even though I’m a socially awkward introvert who often finds humans exhausting, I still love us, especially the youngest of us, and I’m so bone-deep weary of the ways in which we keep actively choosing to fail each other.

I have no grand conclusions here. I know that writing this here and publishing it on my little personal blog won’t change anything, and that I’m likely to have even less impact than that character in Network shouting about being mad as hell, but I want those of you who read here to know that our schools aren’t all right, and that our issues have not been caused by the pandemic, just revealed and exacerbated by it. I am writing here to bear witness, more like the people in that same movie shouting from their windows and fire escapes than the network executive having a televised meltdown, but maybe if enough of us do that it can be the starting place for putting broken things back together. Or, at the very least, for cleaning them up.

Winter’s coming

Sometimes, these past few months, as I let the world’s news glance off me, I allow myself to sit (only for moments) with a growing truth: That the bedrock upon which I lived for more than 50 years is shifting and breaking, and there is no putting it back (any more than one can put the earth back after a quake), and that this time of relative (surface) calm (in which I can push looming catastrophe into the canyons of my life, out of sight/out of mind) might someday, in retrospect, feel like the last weeks of fall, when the beauty is mostly (but not entirely) gone and you can see the shape of the season to come, and you want only to cling to the vibrant colors as long as you can, the way you imagine the last few leaves would be doing if they could, you know, literally cling, and could know anything about the inevitabilities of temperature, wind, or their fate. We know the spring will come round and everything will bloom again, but not for them.

Not for them.

A few dots

The Bad Guys Are Winning

We’re Not OK

A War on Books?… (via ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom newsletter)

Is Cozy Season a Cry for Help?

How to write a poem

First of all–and most importantly–you can’t go looking for it. (Except, of course, when you do, as I am here.) You will go looking, most likely, because you want it and you’ll get tired of waiting for it to come tapping on your shoulder one day when you’re in line at the grocery store or strolling the library shelves or walking the dog, as if your writing life were a romcom and you are a young Meg Ryan (if she were weightier, somehow, and far more deep, like you) and the poem is Tom Hanks or Billy Crystal (but smarter and more handsome). Honestly, you can go about it either way–looking or not, purposefully or not–but the best ones happen upon you, usually when you’re engrossed in some other pursuit, in being alive.

While you’re doing that–being alive, living a life–the true ones will come at you sideways, catch your attention for a moment through a fragment of memory, a snippet of language, a scent that takes you home. It’s such a balancing act, you know? There you are, immersed in some experience or another, and then, this other fascination comes along and you have to decide if you will follow it.

Let’s say you do. (You’ll have to, if you’re going to write a poem.) You turn to follow what beckons, to see where it might take you.

From there, well, things can go so many different ways. (Isn’t that part of the thrill of it, that you can’t know how it will all go?) It’s the beginning of the dance, and it’s different for all of us, really. It’s different every time, even though it might feel like you take the same steps over and over again. The more you write, the more you’ll come to know and hone your moves, develop your way of being with words. Some of us rush in, stripping ourselves bare before we’ve hardly gotten through the door, while others peel layers slowly, savoring each new revelation before reaching for the next. Either way, surprises abound, things we couldn’t anticipate when we started.

So many think it’s all about that first draft and getting it on the page. They think the passionate melding of your senses with your language with your hands with your memories is the heart of the matter, the most important thing; they think that’s what writing a poem is. Sometimes, rarely, maybe. But write long enough and you know: That’s only the beginning, that initial tumble into the sexy potential of it all. The next day (or week or month), when you open your eyes to light and see not a grand passion but crumpled sheets and stale metaphors and the mess of your feelings strewn across the page: That’s when you decide if where you’ve gone is worth a longer stay.

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

Sometimes that heady frenzy is the point, and it’s enough just as it is. Maybe you’ll walk away from it, grateful for some thing it helped you see or know or remember. Maybe it was just an itch you needed to scratch. Maybe it was nothing, and you can see that and it’s fine, just fine. It was what it is. You go back to walking the dog and buying groceries and picking up library books, perhaps more primed to notice the world’s glances that come your way, that spark that could turn into a real poem.

Sometimes, though, you know it’s the beginning of something more than words scrawled through some feeling’s heat. It’s something you could sustain, that could sustain you. So you turn toward it and hold on.

This is where the work begins. (All poems are work, just as everyone says.)

At first you tackle the easy things, a word here or there, a phrase, a clause. You begin tentatively, seeing where things hold and give. The more you come to know the poem, the deeper you’re able to go. You add, delete, and combine with confidence. You trim the redundancies and the modifiers that are about nothing but nervousness or bravado or fear. You might write or cut whole stanzas as you realize what the poem is going to be, to mean. The more you polish, the more clearly you see, and you keep only the parts that work with the whole. The poem begins to gleam. You do, too.

Sometimes, it’s as easy (and difficult) as that. Other times, you get snagged or stuck. You do and undo, do and undo in futile loops. You might come to doubt yourself. You might tell yourself that you’re a shit writer who’s never written anything worthwhile and that you’re probably not capable of writing at all. Get over that. It’s just early life trauma coming around to have its way with you. Don’t let it.

However, if you try and try and try and can’t get anywhere, it’s time to take a step back and consider radical revision. It’s time to look hard at the frame you built in that first coming together, to see if the way you began allows for a structure that holds. Do you need to let someone else be the speaker, change the tense, impose (or tear down) a form? Oh, how hard it can be hard to realize that what you’ve written doesn’t work, that to save any of the poem you will have to rebuild from the ground up. You might hate doing this because you’ll feel as if it won’t even be the same poem any more.

Maybe it won’t. It might not be worth saving, the thing you’ve turned your beloved poem into. You might have to let it go.

If you’re not ready to do that, you could try just putting it away for awhile. Go about your business and get some distance. When all you can see is weakness, when you can’t remember what you ever saw in the poem anyway, when you’re sick of the sound of its voice, when the poem on the page just can’t become the one in your head, maybe give it a rest. Just put it aside. Let it be. (You might even try writing some new poems for awhile.)

One day, when there’s a chance the words might sound fresh again, pull it out and see what it is to you now.

Sometimes you’ll realize you were an idiot, that you were just too close to the whole thing to see what you had. Other times you’ll realize it was as doomed as you thought, or that even though it’s not all that bad, it just isn’t and can’t be what you hoped for. Let it go, if that’s what’s true. Do so with peace. You learned something from it, you know. You always do.

None of your words are ever wasted.

*****

These words grew from an exercise from The Daily Poet, by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Solano. It’s a book I picked up last summer, when I was strolling a bookstore and imagining what the coming fall would be. I thought I would be fully retired, with lots of time to write. As I had no ideas about what I might want to write, I thought a book of exercises might be useful for building a consistent writing practice, a good way to discover what you want to focus on.

As this week turned toward its end and I realized I hadn’t written anything (again) or (again) felt the pull to write anything and knew I didn’t want to write about any of the things that had been yammering inside my head, I pulled out this book that I’d done nothing with (so far) but put on my shelf.

The book contains a writing prompt for each day, and I chose the one for the day I’d be publishing this post, November 14:

Teach Us: Write a poem that teaches the reader about something….Have this “teaching” happen through the poem, but have it be about something else entirely….See what you can teach the reader when you write the poem about something other than what is being taught.

Feel free to let me know what you think the true subject of the writing is. 🙂 I did not write a poem, and you don’t have to, either. The beauty of a book of prompts is that the whole point is just to get you started. You can do what you want with them, and this was a week in which I needed to do more of what I want and less of what I think I should. It was nice to shut the yammering up for a bit.

Hello darkness my old friend

So much can change in seven days.

One Saturday it’s all sunshine and pumpkins and leaves blazing against blue skies, and the next it’s wet sticks and relentless wind, the willow’s branches swept bare. I scoffed at Cane a week ago when he suggested that it would be our last sunny day until spring, then conceded that, perhaps, it was the last of a certain kind of sunny day. But I didn’t mean it. I thought we’d surely have more.

I was wrong.

The coleus plants that have flourished in our window box since August withered in days, and the pumpkins on our front porch seem suddenly garish. One afternoon I stepped outside to carry our old Daisy down the steps she now too often stumbles upon and was surprised by the cold that bit me right through my sweater. In just a week our corner of the world went from glorious to grubby and grim.

So now we turn inward, toward candlelight, simmering soups, woolly socks, and soft blankets. These are the weeks–this short lull between holidays–for sitting away a whole afternoon in a cafe with an old friend. For playing a game in front of a fire, and clearing a table to hold the pieces of a puzzle. It’s the beginning of wondering where another year has gone and of pondering what we’ll make of the next. Tonight darkness will descend before we’re ready for it, and we’ll feel something inside ourselves hunkering down for the long haul of winter, even though its supposed beginning is still weeks away.

I’m more than a little sorry to let go of what feels like true autumn, those afternoons of kicking crisp leaves with boots that feel new simply because it’s been so long since we’ve worn them. But this late stage is just a different kind of true, one that tests our loves in ways that easy days never do.

(A human can learn a lot from her canines about adaptation and comfort.)

Would love to hear all about how you weather this time of year, and what it’s like in your part of the world.

Take that life and shove it

A friend and I have been talking about the Great Resignation, a phenomenon I consider myself to be part of. I’m still working in education, but I’m officially retired (drawing a pension) and have left the district I’d been with for more than a decade. I left for the reasons we’re presuming a lot of people have left and are leaving (at accelerated rates) their jobs: I was unwilling to return to my pre-pandemic life/job and found a way not to.

Now I work a 1/3 teaching job in a different organization, and I love many things about it. But. (You knew there was a but coming, didn’t you?) Things often feel weirdly off, and I can’t attribute all of them to my 12-year absence from classroom teaching.

A blog post this week from Sarah Kain Gutowski, a poet and college-level teacher, gave words to something I’ve been struggling to describe for weeks now. She is experiencing a large number of students who aren’t meeting usual expectations. Some cannot because of continuing pandemic-related challenges. Others seemingly won’t, or also can’t, or…who knows? They just aren’t doing the kinds of things we’ve always expected students will do. Sarah notes that simply failing large numbers of students isn’t a viable option, and that in the face of this:

There is only so much energy I can spend pushing against something nameless and shapeless but larger and stronger than I am. At some point, I just have to go where it guides me.

And I felt that zing of recognition and ohyes that strikes when someone puts words to exactly what I’ve been living.

I think, perhaps, it is not just adult workers who are resigning from work situations that are not working for them. I think many of us are, even the youngest among us, and we’re doing it in a variety of ways and not just with respect to work. I feel as if I’m in the midst of something nameless (because I don’t think “great resignation” really captures what I’m sensing) and shapeless that is something so far beyond just my little existence. I realized within the first weeks of school that I would have to go where it guides me in my classroom, and now I’m getting curious about how this Thing all around us might guide us in other ways.

For many decades of my life, I viewed quitting as nothing but negative. I remember a conversation with my dad in my early teen years, in which he expressed concern that I never seemed to stick with anything. While I’d had good reasons for quitting Bluebirds, the clarinet, track, and ice skating, I still felt shame about my lack of…something. Some kind of strength or some quality of character that was going to be essential for doing Great Things and living a Good Life.

Not many years after that conversation, my dad’s brother once infuriated me by lecturing a boyfriend on the same topic. “It’s so important not to be a quitter,” he proclaimed to the young man I loved who had recently dropped out of college. Nearly 40 years later, I can still feel my outrage, but I know now that my feelings were as much about my own fear and disappointment about my beau’s choices as they were about my uncle’s rudeness.

I was socialized to put up with things, and to see sticking it out as a virtue, and to never, ever quit something unless I had an alternative something else already in place. I saw myself again in Derek Thompson’s words I linked to in the first sentence of this post:

The truth is people in the 1960s and ’70s quit their jobs more often than they have in the past 20 years, and the economy was better off for it. Since the 1980s, Americans have quit less, and many have clung to crappy jobs for fear that the safety net wouldn’t support them while they looked for a new one.

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/10/great-resignation-accelerating/620382/

Oh, man. Do I know clinging to a crappy job (marriage, home, city) out of fear. What I know now is that fear is a terrible reason to stick with anything. Sometimes we have to. Sometimes we have to stick with something until we can find a safe way to escape it. Fear is a necessary emotion that often helps to keep us safe, and I don’t want to discount that or to ignore that, sometimes, quitting is really not an option.

But I am so here for this resignation thing going on, whatever it is. I’m still in process on my journey to a healthier, more manageable life, but I’m definitely getting there, and quitting my old job was a huge, first, and necessary step. I’m grateful, too, for my students’ various ways of quitting the ways in which we’ve always done school. They are pushing me to be a more humane and more effective teacher than I’ve ever been–and it’s leading me to new practices that are better for me, too. Sometimes I can get mired down in sadness and regret over things we have lost and are losing (truly bipartisan legislation, for just one), but this week I am finding value in thinking about things we should quit. I’m glad to be re-thinking the whole notion of quitting, and to rewrite some of the scripts that have shaped me, my life choices, and my feelings about myself for so long.

This weekend I got caught up on reading one of my favorite blogs, and truly enjoyed Bethany Reid’s recent essay about her marriage, written in an A to Z format. I love this format (similar in many ways to collage, a visual form I’ve always loved) and it reminds me of Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, one of those books I wish I’d written. And now I’m thinking about writing an A to Z of things I’ve quit, just to see where it might take me…

Would love to know about things you’ve quit or want to quit, too, or your thoughts about the Great Resignation.